“I was very scared when I first entered the safe house. I was lonely and didn’t leave my room for a month,” said Ms. Alemtsehay*, now 18.
She was recalling her early days at a safe house that offers shelter for survivors of gender-based violence, supported by UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. “The people here are very welcoming and kind, so it didn’t take me long to adapt,” she added. “Now I have become the person who welcomes the newcomers.”
When she was just 14, Ms. Alemtsehay was among tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in the Metekel Zone, in Ethiopia’s northwestern Benishangul Gumuz region, as fierce inter-communal fighting broke out. Before the conflict, her parents kept cattle and ran a successful farming business near Mandura City. But when armed groups attacked their village the family fled, leaving everything they owned behind.
For Ms. Alemtsehay, this also meant abandoning her schooling. As a bright student who consistently ranked at the top of her class, she understood the value of education – and the cost of missing out on one. “If we are not educated, we can’t change our lives,” she explained.
Finding courage in adversity
The family sought refuge at the Chagni camp for displaced people, in the neighbouring Amhara region. Ms. Alemtsehay tried to enrol at a local school, but she had left all her documents behind in the fray and wasn’t allowed to transfer. Unwilling to accept this situation and undeterred by the fighting still raging in her hometown, she left her family and returned to live with a relative to pursue her studies.
Her endeavour was short-lived, however: Struggling to cope in their vulnerable situation, her parents had accepted an offer from an older, wealthy man who promised to support the family financially – in exchange for Ms. Alemtsehay’s hand in marriage.
Horrified, she refused and insisted on staying in school. Her parents relented, but her suitor was more tenacious. He moved closer, following her as she went to school. Fearing he would try to abduct her, she ran away to stay with her older sister in a nearby city and enrolled at yet another new school.
Some days later the man appeared again, tormenting her as she tried to continue her education – and childhood – in peace.
At her new school, Ms. Alemtsehay attended an awareness-raising session on gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health, where she heard about a safe house run by the Mujejegua Loka Women’s Development Association, a local NGO and UNFPA partner. After learning that the safe house offered shelter and support to survivors like her, she explained her situation and was offered a space to escape and continue her studies.
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“I was relieved to join a place with a supportive environment, counselling and other resources to help me feel safe and move forward,” she told UNFPA.
From healing to thriving
The safe house is able to shelter up to 100 women and girls, all of whom are either survivors of rape and intimate partner abuse, or are fleeing forced marriages. In addition to providing a home and food, the safe house offers education, medical treatment, psychological therapy and training in vocational skills to help the women and girls rebuild their lives.
One of ten safe houses supported by UNFPA across seven regions, it is funded by Japan and enables referral pathways to the police, public prosecutors and legal offices, and helps survivors to report abuse and seek justice.
After four years at the centre, Ms. Alemtsehay continues to excel academically, maintaining her spot at the top of her class and in her region. She told UNFPA, “I want to attend Addis Ababa University and study social work, so I can empower women and girls and support them in leading safe and fulfilling lives.”
*Name changed for privacy and protection